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Album review: 'Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein'

June 7, 2010 |  7:14 pm

Shel_silverstein__240_ Once upon a time, there lived a crazily talented man named Shel Silverstein, known for his bald head, bushy beard and large, wild eyes — perceptive tools with which he surveyed the world and then turned what he saw into deliciously inventive and idiosyncratic poems, stories, children's books and songs.

Although Silverstein — who died in 1999 at age 68 — is most widely known today for the classic children's books "The Giving Tree" and "A Light in the Attic," his songs were widely admired by those familiar with them and resulted in a surprising number of hits, given the craggy, offbeat personality with which he infused them.

This salute to the musical side of his multifaceted career was spearheaded by Silverstein's longtime champion, country singer Bobby Bare, and his son, alt-rocker Bobby Bare Jr.

Bare Sr. has recorded many of Silverstein's compositions throughout his own career, most notably in his 1973 double album "Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies," which consisted exclusively of Silverstein's colorful character sketches and brilliant wordplay.

It's a testament to the broad-based respect many musicians have for Silverstein that this set brings esteemed country-folk veterans such as Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Ray Price, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams together with younger-generation indie rockers including My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Dr. Dog and half of the Pixies.

What's so impressive about Silverstein's reach is that it spans from the unadulterated wonder of "Daddy What If" (a 1973 hit duet between Bare and his then-young son, redone here by Bare Jr. and his daughter, Isabella) to the loopy barroom fables of "The Winner" and "A Boy Named Sue," as well as a wrenching look inside the mind of a tortured suburban housewife, "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan."

Dr. Dog crafts a harmony-rich, Brian Wilson-influenced reading of "The Unicorn," using a chunky rock beat that leaves behind the airy lilt of the Irish Rovers' 1968 hit version, and Kristofferson gives a magnificent reading of "The Winner" that drips with revealing humor. Williams' journey through "Lucy Jordan" makes it as hauntingly tragic as the best of her own material. Bare Sr. saves "The Living Legend" for himself, a song that could easily have been the blueprint for Bad Blake from "Crazy Heart" with its empathy for a down-and-out folk singer.

And wouldn't it be just fabulous if Black Francis and Joey Santiago's supercharged performance of the old Dr. Hook hit "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" worked its magic once again and got Silverstein's smirking mug on the front of the music magazine a decade after his passing?

—Randy Lewis

Various Artists
"Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein"
Sugar Hill
Three and a half stars (Out of four)


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